The 8 laws of leadership a "Perfumed Prince" will never follow

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You may never have heard the term "Perfumed Prince." It’s a term that grew into popularity from the Vietnam War era and probably grew out of the ease with which visiting, and frequently high ranking officers, could flit in and out of the frontline jungle due to the mobility offered by the ubiquity of the helicopter in the U.S. Army.

Usually these higher ranking officers, the new princes of top military leadership, were well-fed, more often than not wearing clean, even pressed and starched, jungle fatigues. Some said they even reeked of cologne, a little off-beat for a combat zone.

These "princes" presented a rather severe contrast to the grimy, dirty, tired, hungry fighters they visited.

A boss will say "go", whereas a leader will say "let’s go".

The Coming of the Perfumed Princes

Colonel David Hackworth, one of the most decorated of American soldiers, frequently used the term "Perfumed Princes" and he may have even originated it.

It soon replaced the more general designation of "the brass" that had previously been used to describe senior officers residing behind the lines. But the implication was far more derogatory. It described a self-serving military bureaucrat who was more interested in his own wellbeing and the advancement of his career than those individuals who he looked down upon and who had the misfortune to serve under his command.

Peter and the Perfumed Princes

I never heard Peter Drucker use the term "Perfumed Princes". But he would have understood exactly what the term implied. He described how in growing up in his native Austria in the years immediately after World War I, people didn’t speak of the "perfumed princes" or "the brass." But even Drucker’s school teachers claimed the reason that the Central Powers, which included Austria, lost the war was that not enough generals got killed.

They did not mean this literally. Or maybe they did. What they wanted to mock by this statement was that the military higher ups in command and therefore in charge of making things happen were too far removed from the where action was.

They didn’t share the hardships and risk of those who were expected to make things happen under risk and uncertainty. They didn’t as management guru Tom Peters recommended, "manage by wandering around."

Consequently their decisions and strategies were frequently based on false or inaccurate assumptions and were therefore wrong. This both cost men’s lives as well as the loss of the war. Of course there was more to it than that because many top ranking generals on the allied side also made decisions while being far removed from the action.

Perfumed Princes May Hang Out in Your Office

The price paid due to Perfumed Princes may not be as great as that which resulted from those Perfumed Princes to whom Drucker’s teachers referred.

However we can find Perfumed Princes even in the environments in which we typically work. And they too extract a price for their existence. Perhaps you have seen these "Perfumed Princes" in your organization:

  • They make rousing speeches about the necessity of a certain action or project, but when the actual work needs to be done, they are nowhere to be seen.
  • They are quick to point out others to blame when tasks that are part of their responsibilities go wrong, but if there is a success, they take the credit and act as if they did it all themselves.
  • They are the first to take advantage of any privilege of rank or position of authority that they might hold and they put their own wellbeing above those they lead and sometimes even above the mission of the organization.
  • They know very little about what’s happening in the organization, but if superiors are present they speak with great authority --- even if they don’t have a clue about what they are talking about.
  • They get promoted not because of real accomplishments, job expertise, hard work, or leadership, but because of their facility at office politics and appearances

How to Avoid Being a Perfumed Prince Yourself

In 2007 I completed a major study of leaders in a variety of demanding roles. About that time Peter invited me for lunch. It was in November and close to his birthday. I drove and we went to his favorite restaurant.

He was having difficulty with his legs and I felt a little guilty when he had to cram himself into the limited space and the uncomfortable bucket seat available in my sports car. The reason for his invitation was that Drucker had some issues that he wanted to speak to me about regarding the direction of my various research projects. At the same time I was eager to meet with him as I wanted his opinion regarding my study of leadership under significant stress and the eight laws I had developed as from this work.

After completing our meal, I presented my eight universal laws to him. His comments at that time were saved and went into a much later book Drucker on Leadership (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Here’s what he said about each along with some comments he had written on the subject.

Law No 1: Integrity First

"You are entirely right and absolutely correct in listing this as your first law. A leader can be well-liked and popular and even competent and that’s all well and good, but if he lacks integrity of character he is not fit to be a leader."

Drucker wrote: "They (followers) may forgive a man a great deal: incompetence, ignorance, insecurity or bad manners. But they will not forgive him lack of integrity."

Law No 2: Know Your Stuff

"This seems obvious, but some managers do try to cut corners rather than mastering the knowledge that they must have and that is essential to the quality of their performance."

Drucker wrote: ". . . leadership rests on being able to do something others cannot do at all or find difficult to do . . ."

Law No 3: Declare Your Expectations

"I’m uncertain what you mean by this. If you mean that a leader should declare his objectives, his mission --- by all means."

Drucker wrote: "Each manager, from the ‘big boss’ down to the production foreman or the chief clerk, needs clearly spelled out objectives. . . . A statement of his own objectives based on those of the company and of the manufacturing department should be demanded even of the foreman on the assembly line."

Law No 4: Show Uncommon Commitment

"The failure of many is because they show no commitment, or commitment to the wrong goals. This gets back to your third law. Commitment comes from a worthy mission and then strong commitment."

Drucker wrote (referring to The Ford Motor Company’s disastrous Edsel project in 1958): "And so when it got into trouble, nobody supported the child. I’m not saying it could have been a success. But without that personal commitment it certainly never could be."

Law No 5: Expect Positive Results

"There is a cautionary tale. One must not be a ‘Pollyanna.’ Still the central thought is correct. One cannot be negative and succeed in anything."

Drucker wrote: "Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision."

Law No 6: Take Care of Your People

"Many managers are failing to do this, and it will catch up with them."

Drucker wrote: "A leader has responsibility to his subordinates, to his associates."

Law No 7: Duty before Self

This point requires some further definition on my part. What I meant by this is that the leader had a duty to accomplish the mission and a duty to take care of those to who he or she was responsible. The leader’s own wants and needs must come only after fulfilling of this duty.

"This should be the basis of all leadership. The leader cannot act in one’s own interests. It must be in the interests of the customer and the worker. This is the great weakness of American management today."

Drucker wrote: "Douglas MacArthur . . . built a team second to none because he put the task first . . . He was also unbelievably vain, with a tremendous contempt for humanity, because he was certain that no one came close to him in intelligence. Nevertheless, he forced himself in every single staff conference to start the presentation with the most junior officer. He did not allow anybody to interrupt."

Law No 8: Get Out in Front

"Very true whereas junior leader or the CEO, the leader must be where the work is the most challenging. During World War I the losses among higher ranking officers was rare compared with the losses they caused by their incompetence. Too few generals were killed."

Note that here Drucker mentioned what he had heard even before he was a teenager.

Drucker wrote: ". . . the human being himself determines what he contributes."

"Perfumed Princes" don’t follow these eight laws. As a result, they frequently fall short long before they become "princes," perfumed or not. But sometimes they do manage to get promoted into positions of responsibility. And that’s dangerous, not just for them, but for their associates as well.